The Giants look like the right team at the right time: a club built on homegrown pitching in the Year of the Pitcher, the lowest run-scoring environment in 18 years. But the Rangers have the greatest singular asset of the postseason, ace Cliff Lee, who is historically great, and an athletic offense that, unlike the deposed Phillies, finds multiple ways to score.
By the end of it, one of the two longest world championship droughts this side of the Cubs and Indians will have ended -- and so, too, if baseball has any luck, another major drought for the rest of us.
World Series Game 7, the best day in sports, hasn't come around since 2002. It is the longest drought without the baseball season ending with a winner-take-all game since 1923, the end of an 11-year run without the ultimate game.
San Francisco and Texas are matched closely enough to make a seventh game possible. So how do we get there? Consider these the 10 most important questions about a series that America just might learn to love:
1. Is Cliff Lee beatable?
No, at least not in the postseason, until somebody proves otherwise. He has started eight postseason games, and his team has won them all -- easily. The aggregate score of his postseason starts is 53-14.
Lee has thrown four postseason games with no walks and 10 strikeouts -- as many as every other pitcher combined in the other 2,568 games in postseason history.
Lee enters his Game 1 start with eight days of rest. What might be a problem for many command-and-control guys is no issue for Lee; in 12 career starts with extreme rest (six days or more), Lee is 8-1 with a 1.57 ERA, including his World Series Game 1 win last year. If Lee wins Game 1 on Wednesday night, he will become the first starter ever to win Game 1 in two consecutive years with two different teams, and only the second pitcher to win Game 1 on the road twice (Red Ruffing, 1938 and 1942).
"The ones who struggle with too much rest or too little rest do so because of their mindset," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "He doesn't buy into that. It's a non-factor for him."
No pitcher has loomed over a World Series like this since Orel Hershiser in 1988, Bob Gibson in 1968, Sandy Koufax in 1963 and Christy Mathewson in 1905. Of that group, only Gibson's Cardinals failed to win the World Series.
2. So do the Giants have a chance in games started by Lee?
Yes. If they can make them bullpen games, they gain the edge, thanks to a bullpen that relies on power strike-throwers as opposed to the Rangers' finesse-and-deception guys.
But San Francisco will try to create trouble for Lee by attacking him early in the count. The Giants are an aggressive hitting team, and they do well against pitchers who pound the strike zone.
"The way we won this year was by managing to score enough runs for a great pitching staff," said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. "And it wasn't by walking. All year we picked which pitchers we wanted to be aggressive against and which ones we wanted to be patient with. The guys with a high percentage of strike ones are the ones we have been aggressive against. We'll try the same thing.
"[Lee] throws 70 percent first-pitch strikes and 75 percent fastballs. You have to be aggressive against the fastball. It's the same thing we did to get [Roy] Oswalt."
The Giants had success against Roy Halladay and Oswalt -- cut from the same strike-throwing cloth as Lee -- when they attacked them early and not so much when they didn't. In the games they lost to Halladay and Oswalt, they swung at the first pitch only 16 percent of the time (9 of 56). In the two games they beat them they swung at the first pitch 44 percent of the time (24 of 55).
3. What about the almighty pitch count? Isn't that what baseball is all about these days?
Forget it. This is not the AL East. That well-publicized religion about taking pitches, getting deep into counts, trying to drive a starting pitcher out of the game simply by making him throw more pitches ... well, it's not practiced here, folks.
Note to the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams that keep running pitch counts on their telecasts: two of the five least-patient teams in baseball made it to the World Series. The Giants ranked 25th in pitches per plate appearance and the Rangers ranked 29th. With superhackers such as Vlad Guerrero, Michael Young and Jeff Francoeur for Texas and Juan Uribe, Pablo Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez for the Giants, both teams look to ambush fastballs early in the count.
"We're going to be ready to hit the fastball," Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "Our guys are pretty good fastball hitters. And like a lot of guys, they can have some struggles with spin."
The Phillies also were a ferocious fastball-hitting team, but Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum neutralized them with heavy doses of off-speed pitches, rarely doubling up on heaters. The more Lincecum got into trouble, the softer he threw -- a technique mastered by Greg Maddux. Lincecum is not a fastball-dominant pitcher, anyway. But look for him to feed the Rangers even less than his usual rate of 55 percent fastballs.
4. What is the most important game of the series?
There is no doubt that it is Game 4. Firstly, know this: the winner of Game 4 has won the World Series seven straight times, including such series-swinging moments as the Johnny Damon double stolen base in 2009, the tie-breaking eighth-inning double by David Eckstein off Joel Zumaya in 2006, the 14th-inning Geoff Blum home run in 2005 and the walk-off Alex Gonzalez home run in 2003.
But Game 4 is especially important in this series because Lee is pitching Game 5. The 1980s Mets used to say the most important game was the game before Dwight Gooden pitched because they felt so confident about their ace the next day that it felt like an automatic winning streak.
Now think if Lee pitches well in Game 1, and the Giants know he is sitting there in Game 5. It puts tremendous pressure on San Francisco to find a way to win Game 4 before getting Lee again.
The good news for the Giants is that they have the better pitcher going in Game 4, Madison Bumgarner. Tommy Hunter, the Texas starter, nibbled far too much in his last postseason start. Why wouldn't Texas throw Derek Holland? They need him in the bullpen as someone to put out early- and middle-innings fires.
Bumgarner, by the way, will be 21 years, 92 days old when he starts Game 4. Only three starting pitchers were younger when they won a World Series game: Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 (20 years, 356 days), Jim Palmer in 1966 (also 20, 356), and Bullet Joe Bush in 1913 (20, 316).
5. Which team has the edge at the end of the game?
The Giants. Too many postseason games are lost by managers just trying to get the game to their closer. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy has the same edge the Yankees and Red Sox enjoyed in past October runs: a closer who can get more than three outs. Brian Wilson led the majors with 10 saves in which he locked down more than three outs. Texas closer Neftali Feliz did it twice.
6. How important is Josh Hamilton in this series?
Not as important as Yankees manager Joe Girardi treated him in the ALCS. Girardi gave him the Barry Bonds treatment, intentionally walking him five times. The Giants will pitch to him. They will give him the Ryan Howard treatment -- giving him the majority of his at-bats against left-handers.
The only meaningful at-bats Hamilton will take off a right-hander in this series will be off Lincecum, Cain and Wilson. Otherwise, he will see left-handed starters Jonathan Sanchez and Bumgarner and left-handed relief specialists Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, whose stuff sprang back to life in NLCS Game 6.
"To see the swings [the Phillies] took," Affeldt said, "and to see the ball jumped on them gave me a lot of confidence. My sinker was pretty sharp and late."
Why is this so important? Hamilton is the best player on the field in this series, a 245-pound beast who runs balls down in centerfield, scores from second base on grounders and hits 450-foot home runs. But he's just another guy against left-handers. Hamilton posted an OPS of 1.163 against right-handers, but his OPS against lefties is a more mortal .789.
7. The Giants have home-field advantage in this series, thanks to the game-winning hit by Brian McCann of the Braves in the All-Star Game. Isn't that a big deal?
No. This isn't football or basketball, where crowd noise can influence how a game is played. Home teams are 10-17 this postseason. The team with the home-field advantage is 4-3 in the past seven World Series.
But here's one place where it might matter: without the DH in San Francisco, Rangers manager Ron Washington is playing Guerrero in right field, where he has started just 18 games in the past two years. Guerrero is a liability in one of the most difficult and biggest right fields in the game. His throwing, often erratic, is wildly overrated. I would have played him in the less difficult left field -- hey, the Giants have made the World Series with Bonds and Pat Burrell out there.
You can't hide defensive liabilities. There is at least one key play waiting with Guerrero's name on it.
8. How many times will "small ball" be mentioned on the telecast?
It just might be a college drinking game. Expect more sacrifice bunts than home runs. The Giants put down more sacrifice bunts this year than anybody except the Dodgers and Padres. The Rangers dropped more sacrifice bunts than anybody in the American League.
Bochy channeled Gene Mauch in NLCS Game 6 when he bunted in the third inning trailing by two runs. It worked, too. The Giants wound up getting two runs that inning.
The Rangers are the best base-running team in baseball and that will pressure the San Francisco defenders and pitchers, especially Lincecum (27 steals allowed in 30 attempts). The Giants love to play hit-and-run on the first or second pitch of at-bats against strike-throwers such as Lee. Look for plenty of runners on motion.
Both managers understand the importance of scoring first, especially in a low run-scoring environment. The Giants love handing the first lead to their pitching staff; they are 68-21 when they score first (.764). The Rangers have made a habit of jumping out early this postseason -- eight times in 11 games. They are 6-2 in those games, and since Sept. 1 they are 5-0 when they score first for Lee.
9. Should the Giants be worried about their offense?
Yes. It's a blessing and curse, the way San Francisco scratches out wins. The Giants walk a razor-thin line when it comes to mustering enough offense. Their run differential after 10 postseason games is plus-1. Six of their seven wins have come by one run; the other was a 3-0 nail biter. There are only so many times you can win on a seeing-eye grounder.
The Giants are used to this baseball. They have scored 54 runs in their past 17 games, an average of just 3.2 per game. And yet they are 12-5 in that span. They have tremendous confidence and a strange comfort level in low-scoring games. That's great, but at some point they are going to have to score runs against Texas. San Francisco has received two home runs this postseason from what has become the supporting cast for Cody (Babe) Ross. What happens if Ross cools off?
10. Aren't we due for a slugfest or two in this series?
Have you been watching this season? The kind of baseball being played now is vastly different from the last time the Giants made the World Series -- and that was only eight years ago. The Giants and Angels scored 85 runs in seven games, an average of 12.14 runs per game in what would be the last World Series played without a performance-enhancing drug testing policy in baseball.
The average runs per game this postseason is 7.07, a 42 percent drop from the 2002 World Series and a 30 percent decline from all postseason games played that year.
Here's a rule of thumb to keep in mind watching this World Series: the first team to five runs wins; game over. In most cases the winning team won't need even that many. But if you applied that rule to the past 41 games the Giants have played since Aug. 29, it would have failed only twice. That is, in only two of their past 41 games did both the Giants and their opponent score five runs.
Giants fans call this kind of baseball "torture." For the rest of us, it makes for very competitive baseball in which every 90-foot advancement, not just every run, has real meaning.